NCHC Series Part 2: Building the league and a re-do at commissioner
(Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on how the NCHC was formed and how it got to where it is today as college hockey's dominant conference.)
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference was introduced to the college hockey world at a July 13, 2011 press conference in Colorado Springs.
While the athletic directors expressed genuine excitement about the new league, they were also just getting started with behind-the-scenes work.
The biggest tasks on hand were finding a commissioner and setting up the league's financial structure.
Bills were starting to arrive. The league had hired the Goldwater Group as consultants to help launch the conference. The company needed to be paid.
In the beginning, Miami University essentially served as the league's bank.
Miami held and paid all of the bills. Other league members contributed money to Miami to help cover them.
Everything flowed in and out of Miami, and all of the transactions were overseen by Miami's senior associate athletic director in charge of finance and human resources.
His name? Josh Fenton.
Behind the scenes, Fenton was involved with every single aspect of the conference's formation.
In August, a legal team trademarked 'National Collegiate Hockey Conference.'
In September, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan were officially added as the seventh and eighth members.
In October, the league started its first attempts to compile schedules.
Members consulted with Tim Danehy, college hockey's stats wizard, about whether the NCHC should go with a 24-game league schedule or a 28-game league schedule.
A 28-game set would mean a balanced schedule—every team plays each other home and away. But a 24-game schedule, some figured, would give the league a better chance to get a higher number of teams in the NCAA tournament, because there would be more nonconference games.
Fenton pushed for the 24-game schedule and won that battle.
Because Fenton was so integral in building the conference, Miami athletic director Brad Bates asked him whether he'd be interested in applying for commissioner.
"It became a consuming part of my life that I loved, because I really enjoy the sport," Fenton said of helping build the NCHC. "I enjoy working in the sport."
Hiring a commissioner
Commissioner interviews were held in multiple cities on different days.
But the key ones occurred on Thanksgiving week at the Red Lion Hotel in Denver in 2011.
Fenton and former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr, who were emerging as the top two candidates, interviewed on the same day. They even awkwardly crossed paths in the hotel.
For Fenton, it was a busy time.
One week prior, he prepared for his interview at a hospital in Fairfield, Ohio, while his wife, Lindsay, gave birth to their second son, Luke. Fenton left for Denver just days after Luke's birth—with Lindsay's blessing.
A lot of familiar faces were involved in the interview: Miami coach Enrico Blasi, St. Cloud State consultant Gino Gasparini and head coach Bob Motzko, Omaha AD Trev Alberts, UND AD Brian Faison, Colorado College AD Ken Ralph and Denver associate AD Ron Grahame—the same people Fenton worked hand-in-hand with to build the league.
The interview lasted about 90 minutes. Then, Fenton went back home and waited.
After a few weeks of internal debate, the league made a splash by hiring Scherr, who had a deep resume and numerous connections to sponsors.
The decision to hire Scherr was not unanimous. Denver AD Peg Bradley-Doppes was one who pushed for Fenton.
Although Fenton was disappointed not to land the job, he wasn't surprised.
"I was up against the former CEO of the USOC," he said. "I was a senior associate AD at a mid-major school. I believed in my experience and my ability to do the job, but I was also realistic."
Because Scherr had little experience in the hockey world, the NCHC decided to try a unique setup. Scherr, the commissioner, would be responsible for the financial side of things. The league would hire Joe Novak from Air Force Academy to run the hockey operations.
That team—along with director of officials Don Adam and internal business operations director Verna Toller—was put in place throughout the 2012 calendar year.
Much of the work was already done on lining up the Target Center as the league's playoff home and signing a broadcast deal with CBS Sports Network before Scherr and Novak arrived. But those two worked on other items, including officiating.
"Joe Novak was pretty instrumental in the beginning in relation to policies," Grahame said. "Joe was the one doing a lot of it."
But that arrangement didn't even last until the first NCHC game.
In late May 2013—roughly four months before the start of its inaugural season—Scherr resigned to take a higher-paying job as the CEO of the European Games.
Some athletic directors admitted they were surprised. Others said it wasn't a shock. It was clear to them that Scherr, a former Olympic wrestler, wasn't passionate about hockey.
Given a second chance at hiring a commissioner, the league didn't even conduct a search. They all knew immediately where to look.
Fenton was one of their top choices the first time around. And with the league launching in just a couple of months, he was someone who would be able to quickly step into the job because he already had intimate knowledge of the league's inner workings.
"We were very, very fortunate to have Josh," Bradley-Doppes said. "He could be a conference commissioner anywhere. He could be a sitting athletic director at a D-I school."
Ralph, who recently left Colorado College to become Maine's athletic director, said: "When Jim left, it was like, 'OK, it's too bad to lose a guy with those contacts, but Josh knows the league, he knows hockey and he did a lot of initial paperwork.' Josh has been incredible... not a good commissioner, he's been a great commissioner."
Fenton was driving from Oxford, Ohio, to Indianapolis for an NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee meeting in early June when Alberts called and offered the job.
"Here we were trying to create this league," Alberts said, "our total focus is getting it up and going. We had a pretty successful run in the WCHA. Now, we're taking a real risk creating this new league. And we lose our commissioner before it starts. I read some of the (critical) articles at that time about our commissioner leaving, and probably rightfully so.
"But we were really fortunate to have Josh Fenton still available and interested. He was—and remains to be—really passionate about hockey. He has a great mind and business sense. We didn't miss a beat. Frankly, we were blessed. Jim is a good man. But the reality is that his passions lie elsewhere than hockey."
Oct. 18, 2013 quickly arrived.
And on that night in Oxford, Ohio, the NCHC officially arrived on the ice.